Tentative deal expected soon on restaurant wage bill
House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz and Gov. Ned Lamont both expressed confidence Monday they could strike a compromise deal on restaurant server wage legislation by the end of next week.
The speaker also said he wants lawmakers back at the Capitol in special session to adopt a compromise by summer’s end, even if other pending issues — a bonding package, tolls, and a legal settlement with hospitals — aren’t ready for a vote then.
“It’s our intention to get the language hammered out in the next week,” Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, told the CT Mirror.
Representatives for Lamont’s office and the majority House Democratic Caucus already have begun swapping bill language proposals, the speaker said.
If a draft bill has been prepared by Friday, Aug. 9, the next step would be to schedule a public hearing. That would leave legislative leaders a little more than a month to find a date when most lawmakers could return to the Capitol for a vote.
“I think we’re close,” Lamont told reporters later Monday, adding there’s no reason Aresimowicz’s target of a tentative deal by the end of next week can’t be met.
“It’s going to be a deal that treats the restaurant workers fairly and makes sure they get what they’re due and does everything we can to avoid litigation,” the governor said. “We’ll get it done.”
At issue is a bill adopted late in the regular 2019 General Assembly session, which ended on June 5. The bill would have forced the Department of Labor to revisit its regulations regarding minimum wage credits for restaurant wait staff, but Lamont vetoed the bill.
Current law allows employers to pay less than the state’s minimum wage to employees who also receive tips. But many of these workers have blended duties. For example, a server may wait on tables, which generates tips, and refill ketchup bottles and salt shakers, which does not.
The law says restaurants must segregate hours and pay rates, offering full wages for non-tip work and a reduced rate when gratuities are involved.
But the Labor Department, for years, has instructed restaurant owners to follow the “80-20 rule,” which says that as long as a worker spends at least 80 percent of his or her time on tasks that generate tips, the restaurant can pay a reduced wage for all the work.
Over the past year about a dozen Connecticut restaurant owners — who collectively employ roughly one thousand workers — have been sued by workers who argue they are violating the law.
The vetoed bill would have instructed the Labor Department to implement the 80-20 rule. Lamont objected on two grounds, noting the measure had no public hearing and that it unfairly would have made the regulation changes retroactive to any pending labor complaints or other civil actions.
The governor urged compromise. And despite threats from Aresimowicz to attempt a veto override — the original bill had passed by wide, bipartisan margins in both the House and Senate — lawmakers ultimately decided last week to try to find middle ground with the governor.
Scott Dolch, executive director of the Connecticut Restaurant Association, praised Aresimowicz and Lamont for prioritizing the restaurant bill, adding that time is of the essence.
“There’s the potential for more lawsuits to be filed, and for more restaurants to face legal fees,” Dolch said, adding that the food service industry is a key part of Connecticut’s economy, employing more than 160,000 people. “At the end of the day we want to get this done as quickly as we can, but at the same time we want to get this done right.”
The Connecticut AFL-CIO, the Connecticut State Building Trades Council and other labor groups opposed the original bill, arguing it would eliminate important wage-protections for Connecticut’s tipped workers.
Aresimowicz said labor groups are welcome, as any group is, to weigh in during a public hearing later this summer. But the speaker also said the server jobs that would be affected by the legislation are not unionized. And the real issue, he said, involves many restaurants unfairly placed in legal jeopardy simply for following the guidance offered by state government.
Sal Luciano, President of the Connecticut AFL-CIO, disputed the speaker’s interpretation of labor’s role in the issue.
“Labor unions are not self-interested organizations that only seek to benefit their members. We were at the forefront of the fight to raise Connecticut’s minimum wage to $15 an hour despite the fact that the vast majority of workers who would benefit from this increase are non-union workers,” Luciano said. “Tipped workers are easily exploited, harassed, and are too often the victims of wage theft – all because they don’t have a union or a voice at work.”
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